In the News:
A Visit to Warri…
The home of indigenous dredger builder, Jeph Kebbi International.
Ordinarily, Warri used to be a hotbed of skirmishes and inter-ethnic strife between the Itsekiri and their neighbours, the Urhobos. This was mainly during the 1990s. A visit to Warri in 2008 shows many four-lane expressways where narrow 2-lane roads dominated in the past. Delta state ranks about second as the highest revenue-receiving state in the Niger Delta. River state usually maintains the lead. For Warri, although the former administration of James Ibori has been charged to court by the Economic and Financial Crime Commission on various fraud charges, amounting to billions of Naira, and the Metropolitan Police of London has set some financial crime cases against him and his wife, the atmosphere on ground is quiet, even peaceful, as some would say. The communal clashes have stopped. Kidnapping is not happening. In fact, as DDH gathered in Warri, the last case of kidnapping in the city within the recent past was foiled by waterside youths who over-ran the kidnappers and set their captives free.
Our trip to Warri was made aboard an Aerocontractor twin engine propeller jet, filled to capacity. Two airlines now make the about eight 50-minute flights daily to and from Lagos. Arik is the other one and there seems to be also a direct flight daily to and from Abuja. The airport in Warri called Osubi Airstrip was single-handedly built by Shell in the mid-1990s before social perception worsened to its present depths for the Anglo-Dutch oil major. Currently, Shell is fast turning to a leper in the city as well: most of its engagements for business and for pleasure are fast being scaled down, at least, onshore. But the airstrip must be commended as an essential development. Otherwise, this steady and fast-increasing passenger numbers on the daily flights would have had no option but to travel via Port Harcourt airports (about 3 hours by road to Warri). Warri is not less than six hours by road from Lagos.
Our trip to Warri and later to Port Harcourt via the Warri-Ughelli-Patani-Kaiama-Ahoada axis afforded us a first-hand glimpse into that monumental infrastructural development costing the federal government over $3 billion at kick-off stage: the East-West Road Project. From Warri, this new road is noticeable as a new but unopened lane on the right, being tarred. Some bridge skeletons have also been mounted. But this tarring progress stopped short of Ughelli. From the Port Harcourt end, only the land clearing, earth leveling works, some box culverts and some bridge ramparts are noticeable along the proposed route. While Warri end is being handled by Setraco, Julius Berger is doing the Port Harcourt end. However, these skeletal preparations continue to stand alone as it will take quite sometime before the semblance of a thoroughfare can be achieved in very much of the outlay of the multi-billion Naira East-West Road.
As the bus driver conveying the DDH team from Warri commented, five years is the fastest the completion time can be. He posited this based on his own observation that all through the proposed route, only the swamp and mangrove forests beset the two road contractors, especially Setraco. It appears however, that for Julius Berger, an additional headache is the spectre of kidnapping of their expat workers by criminal elements who are out for ransome. As at the time of this passage, one such incident lingered unsolved for which the giant civil engineering contractor pulled out of site till further notice.
For the dredging sector in Warri, however, the complexion of the business is different from Lagos with respect to the major product in demand. Unlike in Lagos where sand is golden, sand is not the hot cake in Warri and surrounding cities. This is because of the relatively lower pressure on human accommodation resources like houses and real estate property. Warri being an epicenter of hydrocarbon production in Nigeria, dredging activities in the area go to serve various needs of the oil and gas industry: well-head sweeping, canalization, reclamation and sand-filling for diverse platform process activities and maintenance, deepening widening of rivers and creeks for access to villages, communities and project sites, etc. Now, however, with the infrastructure needs of remote riverine communities fast coming to the fore of political discourse in state and federal centres of government due to the Niger Delta ferment, construction of social amenities and roads requiring sand and aggregates have meant that dredging activities and resources are directed to meet this exigency. Thus, for road projects in place like Yenagoa in Bayelsa state or the famous East-West road project traversing through five states, sand, much sand, will be needed in the coming years.
But again, the situation is starkly unlike Lagos. DDH did not encounter many sand trucks like the exodus one sees daily along the Lekki-Epe Expressway in Lagos. Only at Mbiama Bridge in Bayelsa state along the East-West road was very much sand winning taking place throughout the route. At this river, one old dredger (possibly a 10-inch) was positioned close to the bank of the river; a fairly large sand heap was adjacent to it. But the solitary dredger was outnumbered by well over 15 artisanal sand miners whose sites bestrode both sides of the bridge. They were using canoes and seemed to be scooping straight from the centre of the river bed to their heaps on the bank. Quantity of dredged sand heaped at this location was very much, and the artisans were busily active at mid-August when DDH passed this route.
Overall, it must be said that the Niger Delta remains a bundle of untapped natural resources waiting to be harnessed. The forest in this part of the country, as far as the eyes can see, looks pristine, green, luxuriant and unspoilt despite the orchestrated environmental damages attributed to hydrocarbon exploitation deep in the creeks of the Niger Delta. The problem would seem to be no fitting modern development for human habitation at all. When the current restiveness is solved by proper attention to corporate social responsibility on the part of the oil companies and adequate infrastructure construction by the various tiers of government, it will be found that the natural endowments of the Niger Delta are still huge, rich and available.
How does dredging and a firm like Jeph Kebbi International feature in this milieu? Well, Jeph Okoro, the moving spirit of this firm, hails from the Isoko ethnic group of Delta state, a man of quite humble beginnings, apparently talented in artisanship. He went through basic schooling the hard way due to poor parentage but, as he narrated during our tour of his 38-acre waterfront facility, his circumstances turned around when he attended foreign schooling. This was mainly in Holland and the USA. Today, armed with such training and the knack of talent, DDH discovered that Jeph has cultivated fundamental affinity to engineering as a way of life. He designed his first 20-inch dredger in Warri and built it in eight months from scratch. He told DDH that he bought only the CAT engine and the pump amongst all the needed accessories used for the manufacture in 2003. In 2008, he repeated this feat turning out another improved version of a 20-inch dredger named Abigail II. It seems in order to give every span of attention to understand what makes Jeph tick because if Africa will become industrially significant, it might well begin with such as these.
Casually dressed and, for the two days of this the excursion, shorn of any elaborate formality, he seems to take engineering design in his normal stride. He told DDH that he designs in the solitude of night or hidden away from disturbance by telecoms or electronic contact. And he designs outside the expected utility of the ubiquitous computer! When we pointedly inquired into this, he supplied unabbreviated reasons…this sure helps to track the mind of Jeph. How does he manage the company? Answer: hands-on. Jeph employs about 80 staff, starts an early day at 7 a.m. and keeps in touch with everything from sand-blasting through dredging to delivering sand by barge to a remote oil-well deep in the creeks. He rebukes the easygoing attitude of the average local worker, and, it seems, works overtime to make up for the aggregate shortfall from these quarters. But this knack now stands out his company amongst the competition. He recalled many an expat project manager helicoptering into his facility to have a first-hand look at the new rave in town. Now, he has solid respect from all the oil majors operating in Warri partly because he’s got the right tools, and has access to the deeper corners that are now becoming no-go areas to expert workers from overseas. Jeph thinks he does not fail because there is no part of his machines that he does not understand or cannot fabricate or replace from scratch.